Orchard Dump
Webmatters : The Battle of Verdun 1916 : Fort Vaux

The Battlefield

Fort Vaux

Despite being smaller than Douaumont the fact that Vaux held out for months gives it a more dramatic history.

Clearly sign posted from all directions the two major routes from Verdun are via the D 112 which brings you directly up through the forest, where you would turn right at the wounded lion and then left further on.

If Vaux is to be the first visit from Verdun it is easier to take the D 630 from Verdun and turn left on to the D 913. You then take a road off to the right — everything is very well sign posted.

Decimal49.199995.46998 Map
Exterior of Fort Vaux

The casemate from the outside


Situated on a hill 298 m above sea level this fort formed the north eastern bastion of Verdun’s defences. It was built between 1881 and 1884. Like the other forts and smaller works (ouvrages) in the system of fortifications, conceived by Général Séré de Rivières, the structure was out of date by the time it had been finished.

In 1885 the French created a new liquid based explosive based on picric acid. They called it mélinite and, to their horror, found it to be four to five times more powerful than anything previously used. Two hundred rounds had reduced the Fort at Malmaison (on the Chemin des Dames) to rubble.

Thus Vaux was reinforced in 1888 with a thick concrete shell. The new styled shells also rendered obsolete the idea of having the fort’s guns in the open air and in 1904 work was started to equip it with a 75mm turret and two casemates with 75mm guns.

Rough plan of Fort Vaux

The fort was equipped with

  • Two Casemate de Bourges, each with two 75mm carriage mounted field guns
  • Turret containing two 75mm guns and an armoured observation post
  • Two armoured command turrets
  • Two armoured lookout posts

The outer defences were also heavily defended with numerous machine-gun posts.

As was the case with Douaumont the Fort’s garrison was reduced and its weapons removed in August 1915. On 26 February 1916 a direct hit from a German 420 mm cannon knocked out the 75 mm gun turret.

The observatory for the 75 mm cannon and its dome (below)

The observatory for the 75 mm cannon and remains of the turret (below) turned into an observation post

When in May 1916 the French tried to retake Fort Douaumont, Vaux was used as an observatory and its commander, Commandant Sylvain Raynal bitterly regretted not having any cannon.

In fact the guns had been removed from the casemate

The cannon had been removed long before the Germans attacked Vaux

On 1 June 1916 the advancing Germans reached the fort and for the next six days the fighting took place inside.

The 250 strong French garrison was made up of a number of different units under the overall command of Commandant Raynal. By the evening of the 2nd the Germans were swarming over the structure and all exterior communications with the fort had been cut off bar the signal lamps.

The small band of men fought with great heroism as they contested every corridor and room with the Germans. The Germans sealed up the ventilation shafts and attacked the defenders with gas and flame thrower attacks.

The ditch

The ditch between the outer wall and the main fort
Looking towards the double battery

A heroic flight

Memorial plaque to the pigeons at Vaux

On the wall outside is a plaque in memory of Vaillant the pigeon

On 4th June Commandant Raynal had sent off his last pigeon with an urgent message explaining their impossible situation.

The pigeon, Vaillant (Valiant), Regimental No. 787-15, is commemorated on a plaque which gives details of this last message and the citation that the pigeon received for its heroic flight through toxic gas causing its death.

Nous tenons toujours, mais nous subissons une attaque, par les gaz et les fumées, très dangereuse.
Il y a urgence à nous dégager. Faites-nous donner de suite communication optique par Souville qui ne répond pas à nos appels. C’est mon dernier pigeon.

We continue to hold, but we are suffering a severe attack from gas and fumes.
It is urgent that we are relieved. Reply via signal lamp communication from Souville which does not answer our calls. This is my last pigeon.

The following night, 5th June, the French shelled the roof of the fort knocking out German machine-guns. This allowed Raynal to evacuate a hundred of those who were not infantry.

At 0200 hours on the 6th June the French attempted a counter attack using two companies from each of the 321e RI and 328e RI. The French infantry were met by a hail of machine-gun fire and despite re-shelling the roof of the fort themselves in order to disable the enemy machine-guns they could not relieve the fort. By 0630 hours the attack had been called off.

Completely cut off from the outside world the much diminished garrison was suffering from dreadful thirst. Filled with smoke, dust and gas the atmosphere was unbreathable.

At 0600 hours on 7th June Raynal surrendered Fort Vaux to the Germans who allowed full honours of war : the Crown Prince allowing Raynal to keep his sword.

At no stage had the Germans managed to get any further than about 65 m into the fort, such had been the ferocity of the resistance.

The fort remained in German hands until 2 November 1916 when they abandoned it to approaching French forces.

Raynal was held captive in Germany before being interned in Interlaken, Switzerland. He was released on 4 November 1918. He spent the remainder of his days in Boulogne-Billancourt. He died on 13 January 1939.

Practical information

Last entry times to the museum are one hour before closing time.

Opening TimesHoraires
Every Day Tous les jours
10:00 to 17:00 hours 10h00 à 17h00
20 December to 31st January 20 Décembre au 31 Janvier
Entrance FeeTarifs
4€ Adult
2€ Child/enfant (8—16)
3€ Reduced/Réduit
The living quarters - no single beds

The living quarters were pretty rudimentary

Corridor inside the main barracks

Inside the main barracks

The actual medical conditions would have been nothing like this

The dressing station — would not have been as calm as this suggests

With the telephone lines cut, pigeons played a major part

With the telephone lines down, pigeons played an important role

The observatory was later altered into a Pamart post

The 75 mm cannon’s observatory was altered to a Pamart MG post in 1917

Remains of the 75 mm turret

The destructive power of the 400 mm shells can be imagined
by the destruction to the turret

The view from many of the forts reinforces their strategic importance

Looking out across the valley below